Less than 50% of nursing home residents, one of the country’s most vulnerable populations to serious illness from Covid-19, received an Omicron booster shot ahead of an expected surge in infections this winter.
The Biden administration has made increasing uptake of booster vaccines among nursing home residents a central part of its strategy to prevent a larger spike in hospitalizations and deaths this winter.
“We are working very closely with nursing home leadership across America and have asked them to step up to do more,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, head of the White House Covid task force, addresses reporters during a news conference Thursday.
“And we’re reaching out to governors where vaccination rates in nursing homes are low to offer personalized support,” Jha said.
The administration is working with care homes to ensure vaccines and treatments are available locally, Jha said. The federal government is also increasing the pool of staff who can administer vaccines in nursing homes.
The American Healthcare Association, which represents nursing homes, asked the Biden administration in November to waive certain restrictions that prevented the facility’s staff from giving residents the shots. The White House said Thursday that nursing home staff can now administer the boosters.
Seniors, particularly care home residents, are the age group most vulnerable to serious illness and death from Covid.
According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, nearly 161,000 nursing home residents have died from Covid since the pandemic began. Nursing home residents make up about 15% of the more than 1 million people who have died from the virus in the US since 2020.
While 86% of nursing home residents have completed their primary immunization series, only 47% of residents have received all recommended booster shots, according to CMS data. Only 22% of nursing home staff are up to date with their admissions.
Jha said most of the people currently dying from Covid are seniors who don’t have their vaccines up to date and who don’t receive treatments like the antiviral Paxlovid if they have a breakthrough infection.
Covid cases in care homes rose 65% from 11,400 in the week ending November 13 to 18,900 in the week ending December 4, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the data, cases fell by 11% to 16,700 in the following week.
Covid deaths in care homes rose 25% from 256 in the week ending November 20 to 321 in the week ending December 11. That’s dramatically lower than the pandemic peak of more than 6,000 nursing home deaths for the week of December 20, 2020.
Jha has repeatedly said virtually every Covid death is now preventable through vaccination and treatment.
“There are still too many older Americans who haven’t updated their immunity and haven’t protected themselves,” Jha said.
In addition to vaccines, anyone who tests positive for Covid should find out if they qualify for treatments like the antiviral Paxlovid, Jha said.
“I realize that everyone over 60 should be treated,” he said. “There should be a good reason not to treat someone and there is seldom a good reason, which means most people should be treated immediately.”